Neither conductor Larry Rachleff nor soprano Susan Lorette Dunn are exactly household names in the world of classical music. On the evidence of the Spokane Symphony concert at The Fox I heard Saturday, they ought to be far better known.
Both Rachleff and Dunn made astonishing music with the Spokane Symphony.
Rachleff opened and closed Saturday’s program with huge bursts of energy in Hector Berlioz’s Overture “Le Corsaire” and the finale of Brahms’ Second Symphony.
But it was not only energy and outbursts of violent brass and percussion that make Rachleff’s performances gripping.
The conductor’s remarks in his pre-concert talk were witty and intelligent, commenting on Berlioz’s need to “push aside Beethoven and create his own style.”
And Rachleff commented on Brahms’ “creating a world of beautiful shadows and fire.”
Did Rachleff’s performance measure up to his talk?
Indeed it did. The Berlioz overture – a turbulent musical characterization of Byron’s poem telling of piracy and passion – took off like a shot.
And it came to a breathless rest only after those noisy descending scales in the heavy brass. Rachleff did not slight Berlioz’s lyric moments after having pointed out that the composer was himself perpetually in love, sometimes with more than one woman at any given moment. The orchestra’s strings and woodwinds provided the sweetness for the echo of those affairs.
Susan Lorette Dunn proved not only a wonderful singer in six of Joseph Canteloube’s charming arrangements of “Songs of the Auvergne” but a beautiful actress, too.
Requiring no more than an arched eyebrow, a little pout, a sly smile or a hands-on-the-hips stance, Dunn underlined the teasing humor, the insinuating sexual banter and the genuine loving invitation of these folk songs.
Orchestral soloists such as concertmaster Mateusz Wolski, flutist Bruce Bodden, oboist Keith Thomas and several others matched and underlined Dunn’s expressive range.
There were some barely noticeable hints of vocal cloudiness.
I learned only after Saturday’s concert that Dunn arrived in Spokane with a cold inherited from her and Rachleff’s young son.
Cold or not, Dunn sang beautifully.
Rachleff and the orchestra concluded Saturday’s performance with a powerfully compelling version of Brahms’ Symphony No. 2. This is a densely packed work, based only on a handful of short melodic motives with Brahms showing a tersely economical grip on symphonic form.
Rachleff kept a tight rein on the unfolding events in this symphony. Even in the slow movement – the one Brahms himself referred to as a “beautiful monster” – the intensity never flagged into sentimentality, or worse, ponderous boredom. And Rachleff brought the folk-like freshness to the third movement, with its playful dance-like lilt and songful melodies, into perfect focus.
The finale of Brahms’ Second is something very special, involving a playful delicacy in the strings interrupted by an explosion of energy with the full orchestra. It happens twice and the explosion always should come as a surprise both times. Rachleff and his Spokane players made it happen just as I imagine Brahms, chuckling in his beard, might have intended it.
Rachleff conducted both the Brahms and Berlioz works expertly from memory.
It is always interesting to see how the Spokane players respond to unfamiliar leaders.
Fortunately this orchestra is not one that runs on autopilot, playing in the same way no matter who stands on the podium. A conductor like Rachleff, an intelligent musician full of imaginative ideas, can bring out new sounds. And those sounds were magnificent Saturday.